A “set piece” is a clever, memorable sequence that captures the style and theme of a movie, often utilizing the central conflict of the story. If done well, it’s a “trailer moment,” as it would most certainly make it into the previews.
Think of it in terms of a pitch. When the other party hears you describe the scene, you want them to say “Cool!”Set pieces are especially important in comedy. Here, it’s simple: you want them to say “That’s funny!”
Seinfeld is a well-spring of funny set pieces…
- George wants to combine his three favorite activities, so he brings a pastrami sandwich and a portable television into bed with his girlfriend.
- Jerry eats dinner with a date and can only focus on her “man hands,” as we see close-ups of the hands, obviously those of a male actor.
- The gang orders soup from the “Soup Nazi” — George loses his soup when he asks for free bread and Elaine gets thrown out when she takes too long.
Just on paper, those are funny scenarios. It’s up to the writers to find three beats within the situation to escalate these jokes to the big payoff.
Here’s some of my favorite examples from movies…
Meet the Parents — the pool volleyball game. Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) is forced to wear a micro speedo, and in an attempt to impress Jack (Robert DeNiro), Greg slams the volleyball into the face of the bride-to-be, breaking her nose two days before her wedding.
How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days — The “bullshit” card game. Andie (Kate Hudson) and Ben (Matthew McConaughey) square off in front of his family in a contest to see who can lie the best, which explores the theme of trust and acts as a microcosm for the central conflict, which is their opposing External Goals — he needs to get her to fall for him and she needs to scare him away. It’s also in this scene that Andie begins to fall for Ben.
I Love You, Man — Sydney (Jason Segel) picks a fight with Lou Ferrigno to protect the honor of his friend, Peter, the wimpy real estate broker played by Paul Rudd. As Rudd’s girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones) asks, “Who picks a fight with the incredible Hulk?” This is the final straw for Sydney before Zooey pressures Peter to drop him as his Best Man at their upcoming nuptials.
Anchor Man — The street fight in the alley. The rivalry between crosstown news teams culminates in the most absurd battle of the past decade. When a man is murdered by a trident, you know it’s good comedy.
Good luck with bringing the funny,